Feature Message

First Sunday of Advent — November 27, 2022

Barbara A. Chaapel examines this week’s apocalyptic Gospel text, exploring how the call to watch and wait is related to the call to act.

Advent 1A
Matthew 24:36-44

The Advent season always begins with eschatological texts from the Gospels, this year from Matthew 24, Jesus’ final sermonic teaching in Matthew. Advent begins not with the quiet gentleness of the nativity scene, but rather with dramatic references to the Christ’s second coming.

The verses just before today’s text predict the destruction of the Temple. Jesus tells his disciples they will hear rumors of wars, nations will rise against nations, there will be violence and earthquakes. It echoes our own time, doesn’t it? War in Ukraine, violence in our streets, upheaval in our elections, fires, tornadoes and hurricanes ravaging our land. And during this, a new age will dawn; the realm of God will break in.

But no specific time is given. The only instruction is to watch and wait, to be ready, for only God knows the time. It will be sudden, unexpected, like the great flood in Noah’s age.

We live between times, perched on the edge of a new world, yet still in an old world. Between the already and the not yet, in a realm described by the Greek word “engiken,” meaning “about to dawn.” We are taking part now in the kingdom of God, yet that kingdom has not yet fully dawned.

How do we live in such in-between times? The key seems to be attentiveness. This is Advent living — living watchfully. Living in readiness —  readiness to help, to stand with neighbor, to name injustice where we see it, to look for signs of God’s realm and presence in every day, in every encounter, in every moment. This way we take part in the coming of God’s realm. This is the way of discipleship, which is one of Matthew’s overall themes. So in a sense, Jesus’ call to be intensely attentive and watchful in our lives is really the call to discipleship itself. As Advent begins the church year, it ushers in our lives as disciples. Being a disciple of Christ is being attentive to the other, to the world, to the presence of God all our days.

How do we live in such in-between times? The key seems to be attentiveness.

One could pair this text with the first petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Two worlds, earth and heaven, collide. The breaking in of justice, of peace, of love. We who are disciples not only pray for that in-breaking, we participate in it.

Verses 40-42 merit particular consideration. At Christ’s coming, two people will be in a field and suddenly one will be taken. And two women will be grinding meal together and suddenly one will be taken and one left. These verses have been used by proponents of dispensationalism (reading all biblical prophecy as literal) to predict the exact time of the rapture, when specific individuals will be whisked away to heaven and others, whom the theology calls the unfaithful ones, will be “left behind.” This interpretation is a misreading of the text. Matthew draws a parallel with the flood story in Genesis, where it is the faithful who are kept (within the safety of the ark) and who stay on earth after the flood to continue their lives. In the same way, it is the ones who remain in the field and at the grinding stone who are faithful, and continue their work after their companions are plucked away.

Living in eschatological time — the “between time” — seems not to mean that we can rest and relax into God’s heaven, but that we should be vigilant and that we have more work to do, more responsibility here on earth for doing God’s work of ushering in God’s realm. The work of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, freeing those in prison, befriending the stranger, visiting the sick and the lonely.  It is work reminiscent of Mary’s song in another familiar Advent text: lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry with good things (Luke 1:46-55). It is nothing less than the work of participating in the transformation of the world.

Living in eschatological time — the “between time” — seems not to mean that we can rest and relax into God’s heaven, but that we should be vigilant and that we have more work to do, more responsibility here on earth for doing God’s work of ushering in God’s realm

Examples of this work and this watchfulness abound. You will find them in the life of your congregation, your town or city, the nation and the world.

  • my synod, the Synod of the Trinity, watched as Ukrainians suffered in the invasion of their country, and one person suggested offering a matching gift for contributions by churches large and small, and in two weeks raised a total of $306,000.
  • Doug Tallamy, an entomologist and professor at the University of Delaware, watched birds disappearing from his property, and so planted his yard in native plants that support insects and caterpillars and pollinators, and thus birds and bees, and now has many species that have returned to populate his land and increase the health and diversity of nature in his small piece of the world. He has written Nature’s Best Hope about his practices and offers free educational seminars so that others in cities, small neighborhoods, suburbia, and rural areas can help create what he calls our newest national park to take small but certain steps on our own land to preserve the natural world.

Despite our desire for certainty, the world is an uncertain place. And the time of God’s coming realm of peace and justice is unknown. But God’s presence is certain. Our job is to watch with heightened attention, and to be ready. To put ourselves where we see what God is doing, where we see signs of the in-breaking of the kingdom. To be ready for what we do not expect.

Questions for reflection:

  1. What can you do as an individual or in your congregation that will be unexpected about your celebration of Advent?
  2. Where have you seen the nearness of the coming realm of God in everyday life, or in this season of your church’s life?
  3. Name a concrete sign of God’s promised kingdom.
  4. What do you believe your work is as a partner in God’s transforming of the world?
  5. What spiritual disciplines or practices help you to pay attention, to be watchful?

Barbara Chaapel

Barbara Chaapel is a retired minister in Philadelphia Presbytery and serves as a parish associate at the First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. She directed the communications department at Princeton Seminary for many years and is a board member of the Presbyterian Outlook